Van Nuys, Calif.
To marchers gathering here for the 3,235-mile ``Great American Peace March,'' global nuclear disarmament is a family affair. Ask many of the nearly 1,500 people now dusting off tents and hiking shoes for their March 1 departure why they will be walking over mountains and prairies from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for nine months, and the same theme keeps emerging:
``I have no control over the future of my children or grandchildren,'' says Joni Lynch, a 24-year-old student from Alexandria, Va. ``I can complain all I want in front of a television set [about nuclear buildup], but it is hypocritical not to do anything about it.''
``I have a five-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter, and I want to do something visually that will say to the world I want peace on this planet,'' says Sherwood Rouser, an advertising executive from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
``We want to feel safe and see aggressive attitudes ended so we can grow old and watch our children grow up and have children of their own,'' says Eric Darby, who is joining the march with his wife, Lucy Woods.
If all goes according to plan, 5,000 ``civilian peace soldiers,'' chosen from a roster of 25,000 volunteers, will cross the country with the support of 125 trailers, including six mobile field kitchens, two tank trucks with water, portable toilet and shower facilities, a laundry, a day-care center, waste and water recycling facilities, and a mobile radio station so the marchers can tune in for schedules and announcements.
And organizers say that fully one-third of the marchers will be families like the Darbys, who are bringing their two sons, three-year-old Logan and seven-year-old Cooper. Children under 12 are not permitted to walk, so the Darbys have constructed a two-passenger cart to wheel the youngsters alongside as they traverse the expected 15 miles per day. Other youngsters will be carried or ride in mobile units and school buses. The children on the march will attend classes in an alternative school that will be going along with the group.
The march itself is the brainchild of David Mixner, a 39-year-old veteran political and protest organizer, who might be said to have started the march for family reasons as well. He heard his seven-year-old niece exclaim she was making no plans for growing up because she didn't expect to live long in the nuclear age. An activist in the civil rights movement in the '60s, part of Eugene McCarthy's ``Kiddie Korps'' in 1968, Mr. Mixner helped organize some of the largest anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and has also been a professional political consultant, serving as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's campaign manager in 1977 and as co-chairman of Gary Hart's presidential campaign.
Because of his niece's comment, he says, ``I decided to take some responsibility to give her and other children a future.'' He traveled the country for several months, visiting elected officials, students, pollsters, and peace activists. He gave his share of his $2 million Los Angeles-based public relations company to his employees and formed PRO-Peace -- People Reaching Out for Peace -- to ``create a moral force so strong that the political leaders will be obliged to act to achieve nuclear disarmament.'' The organization has grown from 4 to 113 paid staff, plus volunteers. It has raised $3 million in cash and donations. It expects total costs for the march to be $13 million to $15 million.
Since the march has yet to begin, most of the attention so far has focused on logistics and planning, which are exhaustive and detailed enough to underline deep commitment:
Marchers are still canvassing neighborhoods for sponsors (asking for straight donations or donors' commitments to give a penny per mile per designated marcher). College students and administrators have been asked to put up the money for the estimated 3,000 two-person tents that will be set up each night on pre-se- lected 24-acre campsites. (Those buying the tents may keep them after the march is over.) The movable city will be divided into six towns, each subdivided into six villages of 140 residents. Marchers are being coached on good travel etiquette and group dynamics and they are being asked to pledge strict nonviolence in the traditions of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and to use no alcohol or other drugs.
An environmental-impact unit will clean up each campsite and, through re- seeding or the planting of trees, leave each area better than they found it.
Planted at the entrance to the tent city will be a large peace banner, making the case to world leaders for the need for nuclear disarmament. Large canvas ``triptychs'' in front of the camp will detail the history of the arms race and will highlight the extent of United States and Soviet arsenals. On given nights, performers will dramatize the issues -- sometimes with music, sometimes with plays -- for the public, and in some large cities major rallies are planned. Those who sympathize with the project but don't have nine months to give to the march can join ``Club Fred'' (a play on the Club Med name) and march for a shorter time.
Just as compelling as the logistics are the feelings of mission and commitment by those planning to take part.
``The real story,'' says Mixner, ``is with these people.''
The Darbys, who come from the town of Paonia, Colo., are part of that story. Lucy says, ``I have to admit it was the adventure side of the march that first piqued our interest.'' She and her husband heard about the march on a radio talk show and thought about it for several days before signing up. Eventually they came up with somewhat divergent reasons for participating, reflecting a pattern evident throughout the ranks of participants.
``The more I thought about it, what surfaced was the importance of being connected to people,'' says Lucy, ``both marchers and those whose towns we passed through -- reminding us all we're one human race.'' She says that the consideration she's given to the project's mission has magnified her sense of community ``to a kind of spiritual connection'' that she finds both thrilling and uplifting.
Her husband, Eric, a Vietnam veteran who says he was not active in antiwar demonstrations in the '60s, cites different reasons: ``I'm not out there flying a banner with the expectation that governments will see us and change their ways.'' His involvement stems from the conviction that the very idea of aggression has to be handled on an individual and very personal level by every man, ``or weapons will just crop up again in another place, in another form. I'm here to change me,'' he continues, adding that the amount of time he's giving to a project like this, with a purpose higher than himself, should hasten that change. ``I want to get along with my tentmate and the person next door. If each of us could concentrate on that, then we could pass on the proper attitude to a whole new generation.''
Since the Darbys' children are home-schooled and Eric Darby is self-employed, there was little problem for the family to join the march. To help pay for the journey (about $3,000 per person is needed), the 1,200-strong town of Paonia threw a large dance and raised about $1,200. Citizens are still involved in radio solicitation, neighborhood canvassing, and letter-writing campaigns to raise more money. The community involvement bolsters the family's sense of commitment.
``One person's getting involved has a giant ripple effect in heightening other people's awareness,'' says Eric. ``When one person shows how strongly he feels about an issue, those around him begin to look at the issues and discuss them, too.''
``We can't imagine not finishing,'' adds wife Lucy, repeating her growing sense of belonging to the larger family of man. ``There's too much momentum and commitment from too many to ever cut it short.''
Does Mixner believe it is really possible to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide?
``Absolutely,'' he says. ``There have been times in history -- whether it was our own American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, Gandhi's struggle to make independence for India a reality, or Martin Luther King's determination that the system of apartheid in this country should end -- that great change seemed distant and hopeless. These people,'' he continues, ``showed us that determined, courageous people can create the climate that makes it possible for our leaders to proceed differently.''